Inside Ten Days on a Lesbian Porn Set

What Women Really Think
May 17 2013 3:32 PM

Inside Ten Days on a Lesbian Porn Set

jonathan harris
A still from "I Love Your Work."

(Jonathan Harris)

Whenever a new acquaintance learns that I report on porn sets, I end up fielding a similar line of questioning about What It’s Like. Are the performers trapped? Are they hurt? Coerced? On drugs? Do they have no other options? Are they dumb?

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

Most of those questions have easy answers—it's usually “no”—but it’s difficult to communicate the full lives and experiences of a diverse group of people working in an industry steeped in public fascination and shame. Now, I can tell them to buy a ticket to I Love Your Work, a new online documentary that follows the lives of nine women over ten days of shooting a lesbian porn film in New York City in 2010. Jonathan Harris, 33, followed these women from wake to sleep, capturing ten-second video clips every five minutes of whatever they happened to be doing—taking the subway, sharing their wedding photos, putting on their shoes, discussing their tattoos, debating feminism, talking about frogs, walking in the park, undressing for the camera. Then, he compiled the footage into a six-hour interactive experience, and offered it up to viewers for $10 for a 24 window of access. (You can watch the trailer here). I talked to Harris, 33, about his experience making the documentary.

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Slate: You followed nine women working on the set of a lesbian porn film. Why did you choose to focus on this particular set of people?

Jonathan Harris: I think porn plays a complicated role in many of our lives. Most men (and many women) watch porn, but very few admit it. It is simultaneously ubiquitous and hidden.  For most of us, porn is a series of fantasies, engineered to make us feel aroused, always slightly out of reach, and usually experienced in private.  I wanted to understand the realities of the people who produce those fantasies.  I wondered what their fantasies would be like. I wondered what it was like for them to be objects of anonymous desire, and, in turn, what they desired.

Slate: The porn industry is subject to endless public debate, but we rarely get a look at the full lives of the people who make it. Did the project change any of your own preconceptions about porn?

Harris: Definitely. When I see porn now, I see real people performing. I think about their lives, what they had for breakfast, what their apartment might look like, where they get their groceries. The power of pornographic fantasies is diminished for me now, because I understand the role of makeup and lighting and camera angles to convey a certain image that usually has very little to do with reality. And I think this is ultimately a really humanizing thing to realize. It makes me feel better about my own body, and about the bodies of other people in my life. I can still appreciate the fantasies, but they have less control over me now.

Slate: You filmed these women for ten seconds every five minutes. Did anything happen in all of those 4 minutes and 50 second gaps you wished you'd been able to catch on tape?

Harris: I filmed at least 10 seconds of video every five minutes, and sometimes more.  In the editing process, I selected the best—the most interesting, sensible, continuous, or beautiful—10 seconds of contiguous video from that five minutes of real-world time, and that's what's in the final piece. The whole idea of the project was not to show too much—to keep the tantalizing feeling of porn that is constantly just out of reach.  It's like a strip tease, or a peep show, or a teaser, but in this case, the teaser is for everyday life.

Slate:  The interactivity of your project reflects how we consume porn on the internet—jumping from clip to clip, catching glimpses of video in between mundane email replies and, sometimes, visits to performers' own blogs. How has the internet changed the way that we consume porn, and view it on a cultural level?

Harris: The Internet's clearly made porn more accessible, so a much higher percentage of the population experiences it now than in, say, the 1990s, when you had to pirate some sketchy VHS video tape, or walk into a seedy magazine shop and hand over your money to get a pornographic magazine. The stakes are much lower now. Porn is something you can watch instantly, anonymously, secretly, and without spending money. It's bright and easy. And because of this, I think it's starting to make sex in general more normalized. I see the American Puritan ethic as beginning to recede a little, and people are opening up to each other about their sexual desires. You see this pretty clearly in something like the 50 Shades of Gray phenomenon, which probably wouldn't have happened if porn hadn't already set the stage. The very fluidity of how we consume porn now— like you say, between checking emails— has made sexuality a more integral part of life. It's no longer something that has to be buried away and done in the dark. People can claim what they like and talk about it openly. I think the prevalence of porn has a lot to do with this shift, although of course not everyone's there yet.

Slate: Nobody pays for porn anymore. Why pay for a $10 for a ticket to I Love Your Work?

Harris: I Love Your Work is not really porn. … it's a project about how people live their everyday lives. It's just as much about youth, fame, gender, fear, vulnerability, honesty, and privacy as it is about porn and sex. Most of all, it's a rare chance to experience a day in the life of nine different human beings, moment to moment, unfiltered and unedited. It's not like reality TV, where there's some editor with an agenda, manipulating the footage for a certain effect. In I Love Your Work, the editing is totally neutral—entirely determined by the time constraints—and this neutrality gives a feeling of raw honesty and truthfulness.